Can the Lib Dems be anything more than a catch-all party for disgruntled Remainers?

A major part of Jo Swinson’s leadership pitch to members was her superior ability to persuade small “l” liberal MPs to join. 

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One of the things that makes the Liberal Democrat conference different from those of the other parties is that it feels more like a family affair: partly because the party is, or rather used to be, smaller, and partly because of its relative ideological homogeneity.

That’s not to say that the inner life of the Liberal Democrats is free from viciousness – if anything, it’s quite the reverse. Mutual loathing among the eight surviving members of the parliamentary party in 2015 was so great that, when I congratulated them on a successful night after the 2017 election, their response wasn’t to celebrate the acquisition of seven new MPs, but the loss of a former colleague whom they found particularly irksome.

One reason the party’s leadership elections tend to turn nasty is that the ideological difference between the candidates is often very small, and the reasons to pick one over another are largely a question of their personal appeal and talents rather than their platform. The recent contest was so good-natured mostly because of the great prize that was on offer. That prize is now Jo Swinson’s overriding mission: to stop Brexit and to realign politics, turning the Lib Dems into a major force. The opportunity available is a result of the shift in both main parties, something that was illustrated this week by two retirements: that of Amber Rudd, who has quit both the Conservative Party and the cabinet, and of John Mann, who has quit parliament and the Labour Party.

Swinson’s critics outside the party tend to believe that her priority is to advance the Lib Dem interest first and to stop Brexit second. They see her announcement that a majority Lib Dem government would revoke Article 50 without a referendum as evidence of that, as it sharpens the party’s differences with Labour but risks making an anti-Brexit majority in the House of Commons less likely.

In practice, the Lib Dems’ new position has two consequences: the first is to maintain their distinctiveness from Labour, and the second is to avoid thorny questions about what Brexit option they would put on the ballot alongside the referendum. But Labour hopes that forcing its Lib Dem opponents into positions where they have to prioritise one or the other will cause Remainers to grow disillusioned, boosting its own chances.

In contrast, Swinson’s internal critics fear that it’s the other way round: that under her the Lib Dems are becoming a catch-all party for disgruntled pro-Remain MPs, however shallow their liberal credentials. A major part of Swinson’s leadership pitch to members was her superior ability to persuade small “l” liberal MPs to join because of her long record of cross-party working. She has been true to her word: Swinson has already successfully added four MPs to the Liberal Democrat tally via defections, as well as a fifth, Jane Dodds, after victory in the Brecon by-election.

One senior Liberal Democrat who has been closely involved with several of the defections describes the process as “a lot like flirting: you talk a lot about them, about how they’re feeling, you make sure they know that you’re interested but without making them feel pressured, and hopefully, they make the jump”.

But some Lib Dems worry that their new MPs aren’t all quite the right sort, and that the price of victory might be their party’s soul. They were delighted by the arrival of Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger and Sarah Wollaston, three MPs with strong liberal credentials on most issues. Angela Smith, who like Umunna and Berger broke away from Labour to form Change UK, is less of a natural fit. Her historic backing for Tony Blair’s most authoritarian policies and her support of fracking make Lib Dem activists uneasy, but as members control party policy they are less irate about that than they might be.

The arrival of Philip Lee, the former Conservative MP for Bracknell, however, was for some Lib Dem activists a bridge too far. Lee abstained on the 2013 equal marriage act and his voting record is a source of angst among Lib Dems, although Lee has convinced the leadership of his bona fides and settled nerves by agreeing to meet LGBT activists at the conference in Bournemouth. The party is particularly sensitive on the issue, having turned a blind eye to Tim Farron’s voting record before making him leader. While Farron, against the opposition of many of his colleagues, adopted the anti-Brexit stance that has transformed the party’s fortunes, his attitudes to homosexuality and abortion helped to doom the 2017 election campaign.

The reality is that while Swinson has an open door to would-be defectors, entry to the party is not unconditional. Those familiar with her thinking cite Philip Hammond as an example of an MP who, for all his opposition to Brexit, could never be welcome, because of his social conservatism and deep-rooted opposition to the Lib Dems’ economic platform.

Despite what her internal critics and external opponents might think, the truth is that Swinson isn’t secretly prioritising Lib Dem interests over Brexit or vice versa. The party leadership sees the two as inextricably linked: only a Lib Dem breakthrough can stop Britain from leaving the EU.

The danger is not that Swinson will fall foul of the difference between Liberal Democrat interest and stopping Brexit, or that the party’s expansion will cause it to lose its soul. It is rather that its opportunity – the internal conflict in the two major parties and the polarisation of the Brexit debate – is also, paradoxically, a risk, because voters might decide that the next election is more about stopping Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn than halting Brexit.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article appears in the 11 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron’s legacy of chaos